September 18, 1862 – With Confederate forces moving into Maryland and Kentucky, the third prong of the overall Confederate offensive began moving in Mississippi.
When General Braxton Bragg led his Confederate Army of Mississippi into Kentucky, he left behind two forces in Mississippi under Major Generals Sterling Price near Tupelo and Earl Van Dorn at Vicksburg. They were assigned to watch the Federals at Memphis and Corinth, and prevent them from trying to reinforce Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio pursuing Bragg.
The Federals at Memphis and Corinth operated within Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s military department, with the troops at Iuka directly under Major General William S. Rosecrans. On the 5th, the Confederates learned that Rosecrans was poised to head north, possibly to reinforce Buell’s Federals at Nashville. Bragg responded by ordering Price to stop Rosecrans.
Price’s 14,000 Confederates moved out on the 11th, reaching Marietta, about eight miles east of Baldwyn. Meanwhile, Van Dorn left Vicksburg hoping to occupy Holly Springs, between Memphis and Corinth. Dissatisfied with Bragg’s plan, Van Dorn complained to President Jefferson Davis. In response, Davis gave Van Dorn command of all Confederates in Mississippi, apparently without notifying Price that Van Dorn was now his superior.
Grant monitored Price’s movements but did not know what they meant. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “With all the vigilance I can bring to bear I cannot determine the objects of the enemy. Everything threatens an attack here, but my fear is that it is to cover some other movement.” After reviewing the information, Grant finally concluded that the Confederates would try taking back Corinth. He directed Rosecrans to concentrate his forces and prepare to meet an attack, but Rosecrans replied, “I see nothing in this to alarm us.”
Price entered Iuka, a resort town 20 miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad from Corinth, on the 14th. Iuka was a Federal supply depot, but strangely it was only guarded by a small force, which fled upon seeing the Confederates approaching. The Federals left tons of supplies and cotton behind; the Confederates took the former and burned the latter.
When Grant learned of this, he saw a chance to preemptively attack Price before he threatened the main Federal supply center at Corinth. He directed two divisions of 8,000 men under General E.O.C. Ord to move from Burnsville, seven miles northwest of Iuka, and confront Price from the north. At the same time, Rosecrans was to lead two divisions of 9,000 men from Jacinto, 14 miles east of Iuka, to confront Price from the south. Ord would attack first, driving Price into Rosecrans’s men, which would destroy him.
The Federals were within striking distance by the 18th, with Price largely unaware of the forces bearing down upon him until that night. Soon after, Van Dorn instructed Price to join forces with him at Rienzi, south of Iuka. From there, they would move north and threaten Federals in western Tennessee. Van Dorn was unaware of the two Federal forces approaching Iuka.
Price prepared to comply, unaware that Rosecrans’s Federals were approaching from the south. However, part of Rosecrans’s force got lost, leaving him unprepared to engage the enemy. Grant then reversed his plan and directed Rosecrans to attack and push Price north into Ord.
Later that day, Grant received news that the Federals had won decisively at Antietam yesterday: “Longstreet and his entire division prisoners. General Hill killed. Entire rebel army of Virginia destroyed, Burnside having reoccupied Harper’s Ferry and cut off retreat.” Grant sent this message to Ord, intending him to forward it to Price. Since Lee’s alleged destruction meant the virtual end of the war, Grant instructed Ord to demand that Price “avoid useless bloodshed and lay down his arms.”
Ord forwarded the message and the demand. Responding in third person, Price stated that he did not believe the report was true. And even if “the facts were as stated in those dispatches they would only move him and his soldiers to greater exertions in behalf of their country, and that neither he nor they will ever lay down their arms–as humanely suggested by General Ord–until the independence of the Confederate States shall have been acknowledged by the United States.”
As Price worked to move away from Ord’s advancing Federals, he was inadvertently planning to march straight into Rosecrans’s men trying to organize themselves to the southwest.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 212; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 717-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 208-09, 212; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-36; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 266; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 522; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 386-87